Stars and structural change
German jazz is in movement. Musicians are organizing and presenting themselves, politicians giving them morsels of subsidies. The next generation is queuing up at institutions of higher education, clubs and festivals are looking at a young audience. Something is going on, still diffuse in direction but vital in attitude. And some artists have taken the opportunity to leap forward. A look back with prospects.A versatile musician: Michael Wollny. Photo: ACT / Joerg Steinmetz | Photo: ACT / Joerg Steinmetz 2013 was the year of the pianist Michael Wollny. It began, somewhat early, on Boxing Day 2012, with the 75th birthday of Wollny’s duo partner, the saxophonist Heinz Sauer (celebrated with a new album); it ended, somewhat late, with the presentation of a newly formed Michael Wollny Trio (celebrated with a new trio album). In between were more album releases plus a bursting performance calendar, but also a few calmer phases in which Wollny could hone new ideas. The high point of the German jazz year 2013 was set by the pianist in autumn: as artist-in-residence at the festival Enjoy Jazz, he presented his music in its various metamorphoses in six concerts and a matinée: in small format and on a large scale with a Big Band and orchestra, in contrast to F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu and on the border to New Music and Planet Electronica.
Surface and undergroundAt first glance, the general situation of jazz today looks rather bleak: in the record shops the number of jazz CDs offered has melted away, the shelves have shrunk. Among what remains the great older musicians dominate; in addition, singers, piano trios and Big Bands also sell. More than ever, jazz has become a genre in a niche, with a market share of 1.6 per cent (2012), placing it on the edge of the detection limit. It can still fill concert halls, at least when the big American stars appear, but this kind of music-making belongs to the middle-class temple of the Muses, complete with plush chairs and evening dress. Where before the audience consisted of existentialist coolniks, today sleek silver foxes look forward to the prosecco pauses.
Taking a closer look, however, we see a different picture: the German jazz scene is currently experiencing a heyday such as could not have been dreamed of in a long time. About twenty jazz programmes at conservatories and universities can barely cope with the influx of applicants; year after year about 200 students graduate, and even if not all of them aim at great artistic achievements, the number of well-trained musicians with ambition is now so great that the effect can be felt. In Berlin and Cologne, the capitals of the German jazz scene, but also in cities with smaller faculties and jazz scenes such as Dresden, Mannheim and Hamburg, there are young musicians who have swum free of the weight of their training.
Master mind in the background of South German Jazz: the bassist Henning Sieverts. Photo: Ralf Dombrowski | Photo: Ralf Dombrowski Now they are standing on their own musical feet, seeking exchange with other musicians, scenes, art forms and initiating interesting projects. Musicians such as the pianists Michael Wollny, Pablo Held and Florian Weber, the saxophonists Angelika Niescier and Charlotte Greve, the drummers Christian Lillinger, Eric Schaefer and Jonas Burgwinkel, and the bassists Robert Landfermann and Henning Sieverts have made improvisation the backbone of their music and taken it in completely different directions: free improvisation and classical composition, Punk and diverse folk traditions, New and minimalist music, pop and electronic – never has the field been more open.
Confident experimentsTo the new freedom corresponds a new self-confidence. A self-confidence that has emboldened the saxophonist Angelika Niescier to adopt a successful New Yorker concept in her hometown of Cologne. At the beginning of 2013 she staged in Cologne for the second time a free indoor festival: Winter Jazz. Fifteen Cologne groups performing on five stages in the City Gardens, the events centre that the Cologne Jazzhouse Initiative wrested in the 1980s from the local government. Winter Jazz presents the incredible breadth of the Cologne scene which, from expressive furore to respectful Monk deconstruction, from brute drive to the minimalist spiritual exercises of pianist Simon Rummel, alludes to every conceivable facet of the contemporary jazz spectrum. And then there was the young audience with a fancy for partying and music, whose good mood could not be spoiled even by the long queues sometimes reaching into the street on the January night.
The new self-confidence is founded primarily in the German jazz scene’s awareness if its own situation. With the revival in 2012 of the Union of German Jazz Musicians (UDJ), a kind of labour union for jazz musicians that fell into a deep slumber after the euphoria of its founding 40 years ago, the younger generation of musicians round the pianist Julia Hülsmann and the saxophonist Felix Falk created an intuitional core from which the debate about the significance of the musical art form jazz could be broached again and again. They did this in so audible a manner that their concerns found an echo even in a special session of the German Bundestag.
And the problems are fundamental: as the dream of a little house in the country has given way to the model of urban living, processes of gentrification subject the last unused spaces in cities to the principle of profit maximization – space becomes scarce, rents rise, the lack of rooms for working and performance worsens. Yet gentrification is also a key prerequisite for the emergence of a vibrant music scene. Despite the progressive extinction of clubs, there was a glimmer of hope in 2013: for the first time a “Venue Programme Prize”, for which the Bundestag has made a million euros available, supported 55 clubs throughout Germany that regularly held events in the areas of rock, pop and jazz with amounts between 5,000 and 30,000 euros. After all, a sign that politics has taken notice of the clubs’ precarious position.
Vital festival sceneOne rung higher on the glamour ladder are the festivals, whose current success sends a positive signal about the state of German jazz. The still young festival ELBJAZZ held in the jazz disaspora city of Hamburg continues to impress in its fourth year of existence with (in addition to a considerable line-up of major international stars from the intersection of jazz and pop) its courage to confront its listeners with musicians who refuse to tell them what they want to hear. A spirit of farewell and melancholy hovered over this year’s Moers Festival, which began over 40 years ago as an open-air free jazz event. Farewell to almost 30 years in a circus tent and from the big hippie jamboree that Ruhr area youth used to hold parallel to the festival in the Moers Castle Park.
Jack DeJohnette at the Berlin Jazzfest 2013. | Photo: Ralf Dombrowski At the start and the high point of the festival the wind freshened up. The New York avant-garde artist John Zorn, for example, a musician who has been associated with the festival for decades, performed throughout the day. Zorn presented such a diverse round of projects intermediary between historical re-enactment, pop, hardcore and free jazz that all notions of stylistic boundaries were liquefied and the medley bore witness at the same time to Zorn’s contribution to the festival. It will never be the same again: in 2014 the Moers Festival will move to a converted indoor tennis centre, which will limit the number of listeners on the one hand and open the festival to new, quieter tones on the other. The Berlin Jazzfest, for its part, seems to have regained its own identity after long years of disorientation. In his second year as the festival’s artistic director, the Leipzig jazz scholar Bert Noglik has underlined his course of presenting both the new and the tried-and-true, and to let their interaction strike sparks.
Rainer Kern has pursued a similar course with the festival Enjoy Jazz in the Rhine-Neckar region held in the cities of Heidelberg, Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, which within the space of fifteen years has grown into the largest German jazz festival. Twenty-one thousand visitors, 75 events and 340 musicians from 22 countries: those are impressive figures, behind which stands a very rich programme that, with the saxophonist Jason Moran and the pianist Brad Mehldau, comprises both pearls of mainstream jazz and stylistic ricochets from all possible directions. Electronic improvisation meets acoustic singer-songwriter poetry, film music meets Afro-Cuban panache. And Michael Wollny was the artist-in-residence, who during the six weeks of the festival, but also in the entire jazz year 2013, simply no one could pass by without stopping to listen to him.